What is stress? According to Webster's Dictionary, stress is defined as "a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation."
A pounding heart, racing pulse, sweaty palms, muscle tension, knots in your stomach, a dry mouth. We have all experienced these symptoms sometime in our lives, but what causes this?
These symptoms are part of our bodies protective mechanism called the "Fight or Flight" response. This occurs due to the release of epinephrine (previously called adrenaline) from our adrenal glands in response to hormonal signals from our brain. Since every person is different, each person's response to stress is slightly different.
Normally, this stress response stops after a short period of time when we relax or have dealt with the stressful event. But what if the stress does not go away, what if day in and day out we are constantly burdened by stress? Over time, this can lead to many long-term health problems. Cortisol causes the release of glucose into the bloodstream, which in turn leads to deposition of fat around the midsection as well as clogging of arteries leading over time to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes.
Constant activation of the HPA axis (Hippocampus-Pituitary-Adrenal) may lead to melancholic depression with dulling of the hippocampus (a region in the brain) sensitivity and a type of "learned helplessness" response. Interaction with the immune system leads to increased risk of infections, fatigue, flu, and even cancer by shutting off the ability of the white blood cells to fight disease.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many more consequences of long-standing stress to our emotional and physical health. So, what can we do about it?
Different techniques work for different people. Exercise helps dissipate some of the built-up tension, and causes the release of natural mood elevators called endorphins. Activities such as jogging, aerobic exercise, weight training, and even dancing stimulate the release of endorphins. Engaging in an activity or hobby that is enjoyable such as arts and crafts, music, sports, gardening, or even leisure reading relaxes many people. Writing your thoughts down in a journal or talking to someone you trust is cathartic for many people.
Different techniques to help relax the body such as yoga or tai chi, which are described as serenity in motion, where a variety of postures performed in a slow and gentle motion flow from one to the next without pause; which helps strengthen the mind body connection.
Qi (pronounced "Chi") Gong is an ancient Chinese medicine and martial arts technique of relaxation incorporating deep breathing and movement exercises. It is said in traditional Chinese medicine that Qi is the "flow of energy" throughout the body and is responsible for sustaining life. Qi Gong is one of the modalities that facilitates in this process.
Pranas means something similar to Qi, but is used in yoga and in ancient Indian philosophy. Other methods include aromatherapy, massage, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Focusing on the present through meditation and imagery exercises is also helpful.
Lastly, never forget the power of humor; sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. There are many different methods to deal with stress, the key is to find the ones that work best for you, fit into your lifestyle, and are easily available when needed.
This article was written for general information purposes and is not meant to substitute the personalized care of your doctor. Please check with your doctor, to see what stress therapies and/or preventative measures are available and if they are right for you, prior to making any significant changes to your medical regimen and /or lifestyle.
For more info
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development —
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — www.cdc.gov
US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health — www.nlm.nih.gov
American Psychological Association — www.apa.org